And on Aug. 8, 1964, it was the scene of a legendary, if infamous, preseason professional football game between the Buffalo Bills and the fledgling New York Jets – pre-Joe Namath. Bills kicker Peter Gogolak booted a record-long field goal during the exhibition.
The Bills/Jets game was a financial flop for its Miami promoter, and some thought it reflected poorly on Tampa’s prospects to lure a professional football franchise. It was nearly a dozen years before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers arrived and began play at then-new Tampa Stadium.
Phillips Field, longtime home of the University of Tampa Spartans football team, hosted its last game in 1967. It eventually was torn down and faded into memory.
Tampa Preparatory School now is on the stadium’s former site.
On May 5, the Hillsborough County Historical Advisory Council will dedicate a marker in recognition of Phillips Field. The ceremony will be held at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park at 1001 North Blvd.
Local historian Fred Hearns marched in the Middleton High School band in the 1960s. During segregation, Phillips Field was home turf for Middleton and Blake High School’s football squads and for marching band competitions. The last game of the season was always a matchup of the Middleton Tigers and the Blake Yellowjackets.
Plant High Panthers and Hillsborough High Terriers also settled their rivalries at Phillips’ field.
“It was a very major stadium in terms of Tampa’s history, for whites and blacks,” said Bob Kerstein, a UT professor who helped research Phillips’ history.
Neither Blake nor Middleton had a stadium. The University of Tampa’s Phillips Field thus filled a void for black high schools during segregation.
“That’s the way it was. Very few black schools had their own stadiums,” said Hearns. “(UT) didn’t have to do that,” he said.
When Hearns thinks of Philllps, he remembers two men: Blake’s coach, “Big Jim” Williams, and Middleton’s coach, William Bethel. The Rev. Abe Brown was then a Middleton assistant coach.
It was so tough to beat Williams’ teams, Hearn said. But the games were “like a holiday. The only thing I remember is going to the gym for pep rallies.”
The Spartans played the first college football game at Phillips Field on Oct. 4, 1937. They defeated the South Georgia Teachers; their last game was in 1967 when the university moved its football games to Tampa Stadium.
Phillips hosted the Cigar Bowl, the Bethune-Cookman’s Tilt of the Maroon and Gold game, and the World War II Third Air Force football teams based at Drew Field. Bob Hayes, a Florida A&M University track and football athlete, and a 1964 Olympic gold medalist, played at Phillips. UT football player John Matuszak was the first overall draft pick in 1973 in the National Football League.
During the 1964 exhibition game between the Bills and the Jets, Bill’s kicker Gogolak lofted a 57-yard field goal through the uprights. It reportedly was the first soccer-style field goal in professional football and topped then-existing college and professional records for field goal distance – though the game was an exhibition.
Future Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, then a University of Alabama senior, watched from the sidelines.
The game was a financial disaster for Miami promoter Mac Mascioli who lost nearly $26,000 on the game after guaranteeing each team $18,000. Ticket prices ranged from $3.50 to $7.50 but less than 6,000 people bought tickets for a stadium with a 15,000 seat capacity.
But Phillips field wasn’t only about football.
On weekends fans could watch stock car races on an asphalt track that circled the stadium. One of Tampa’s top drivers, Pancho Alvarez, recalled to a reporter in 1986 that missing a hairpin turn on the track’s east side could land car and driver in the Hillsborough River.
It was also a popular boxing venue. In 1943, New Jersey heavyweight Tony Galento knocked out New York light heavyweight Herbie Katz. “Tampa Tommy” Gomez was a decorated World War II veteran and a power hitter in the boxing ring. In 1946 he knocked out Freddie Schott in the first round in a match marking Gomez’ return to the ring after his U.S. Army discharge.